Panda Diplomacy and Business Negotiations: Applying Soft Power

“Panda diplomacy” shows the benefits and limits of capitalizing on unique assets in business negotiations.

By on / Business Negotiations

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Back in 2011, Emiko Okuyama, the mayor of Sendai, Japan, launched business negotiations that, at the time, seemed relatively straightforward. Sendai had been devastated by the earthquake and tsunami that hit Japan earlier that year. In hopes of lifting the spirits of children traumatized by the natural disasters, Okuyama and other local officials came up with the idea of asking the Chinese government to loan panda bears to the Yagiyama Zoological Park in Sendai, Mark McDonald reports in the New York Times. By the end of the year, Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda convinced Chinese president Hu Jintao to agree to the goodwill gesture, and two pandas appeared to be on the fast track for a trip from China to Japan. Then things got complicated.

In 2012, a long-simmering dispute erupted between Japan and China over territorial rights to the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited archipelago in the East China Sea whose coastal waters may be a source of oil deposits.

The Japanese family that owned most of the islands sold several of them to the Japanese government, angering China, which maintains it has an ancient claim to the land. Old tensions quickly flared: rioting Chinese demonstrators damaged Japanese businesses in China, and ships from the two countries faced off in the disputed area. Chinese and Japanese officials met privately to try to resolve the conflict.

“Neither side has suggested suspending the exchange altogether,” another Sendai official told ABC News, “but under these circumstances, I don’t expect to get a call [from China] at all.”

China has a long history of leasing or lending pandas, (but never giving them away outright) to countries with which it hopes to build relations, a strategy dubbed “panda diplomacy.” Most famously, during his historic 1972 trip to China, U.S. president Richard Nixon scored a diplomatic coup by securing pandas Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing for the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. (The pandas were officially on loan, but they lived out their lives in the United States.)

Since then, China has sent pandas to zoos across the globe, often with apparent strategic intent. In 2005, for instance, Beijing painted Taiwan’s nationalistic government into a corner by promising the country a pair of pandas, writes McDonald. “The pandas are a trick, just like the Trojan horse,” one Taiwanese official complained to the Los Angeles Times. “Pandas are cute, but they are meant to destroy Taiwan’s psychological defenses.” Taiwan rejected the pandas, but two years later, the nation’s new president, Ma Ying-jeou, reversed the decision in an effort to strengthen ties to the Chinese mainland. Taiwanese citizens were “spellbound” as they watched the pandas’ arrival on television, an event the New York Times said at the time symbolized “a new spirit across the Taiwan Strait.”

Panda diplomacy can be viewed as a form of “soft power,” which political scientist Joseph S. Nye, Jr., defines in his book Soft Power: The Means to Success in World Politics (Public Affairs, 2004) as a country’s ability to get what it wants from other nations through the attractiveness of its culture, political ideals, and policies rather than through coercion or payments.

China uses perhaps its most prominent national symbol, the panda bear, to build bridges with key partners and enhance its prestige worldwide. To take another example, Nye notes that Chinese students created a replica of the Statue of Liberty during their 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square. The allure of American-style democracy, as symbolized by the iconic statue, helped build a movement for reform in China.

Do you have any experience applying soft power to business negotiations? Share your experience in the comments.

Adapted from “Applying ‘Soft Power’ to Business Negotiations,” first published in the December 2012 issue of Negotiation.


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